Arty party where even food was an installation

It wasn't about the art. It was the art of rubbernecking that was most in evidence at the grand opening of Tate Modern last night.

The most feverishly awaited party of the year saw a select 4,000 guests piling into the cavernous interior of London's newest and biggest gallery of modern art, most of whom were craning their necks at the exotically dressed crowd around them, trying to spot the famous, or in some cases infamous, as they fought their way through heavy security and paparazzi to enter.

The grinning director, Sir Nicolas Serota, unofficial patron saint of the art world (for this week as least), stood at the entrance to personally greet Tracey Emin, Gilbert and George, Anish Kapoor, the Chapman brothers, Kasmin and other leading figures of the art world over the past three decades.

But it wasn't just the art world. Colliding under Louise Bourgeois' gigantic spider, Maman, were actor David Thewlis, playwright David Hare, his wife, fashion designer Nicole Farhi, novelist Ian McEwan, Yoko Ono, and Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant.

They dined on quintessentially "modern British" canapés - battered cod on sticks, cauliflower cheese parcels, and shepherd's pie, all prepared by the Tate Gallery restaurant, which, with its Herzog de Meuron crockery and chic, industrial space aims to become an attraction in its own right.

But away from the crowd in the Turbine Hall, talking over the fans of "acid brass" modern club music adapted for the Williams Fairey brass band, the galleries themselves were surprisingly empty.

Norman Rosenthal, exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy and wisely believed to have attempted to upstage Tate Modern with the announcement last week of his forthcoming Apocalypse exhibition, was giving a few friends a guided tour of their Rothko room. He and Serota shook hands at the entrance - but it looked like the steely handshake of two artistic gladiators about to do battle.

Perhaps in an attempt to be truly modern, the anticipated speeches were dispensed with, in favour of a modern ballet performed between trestle tables carefully arranged near the entrance. That was art, of course, and guests crowded round to watch the slightly bizarre spectacle of men in tights weaving their way around office furniture.

Those not watching were queuing to travel, two at a time, up the endless spiral staircase installation called I do, I undo, and I re-do, also by the 87-year-old Louise Bourgeois. The steepness of the ascent, and the freedom with which the champagne was flowing, meant that the speed at which guests came up and went down became markedly slower - and their footsteps a little more deliberate through the evening.

Those at the top would, however, have seen Tony Blair being interviewed by a shoeless Kirsty Wark on the level two raised platform. Close by was his media ally Lord Hollick, one of many newspaper and TV moguls ushered swiftly in (no one wanted a repeat of the Dome queues fiasco, after all).

It was Mr Blair's presence that had helped to swell the numbers of police and security men to almost the same proportions as the guests. The neon overcoats of the police, visible from every corner of the gallery, began to look like some kind of installation themselves. They were there to prevent threatened demonstrations, although the only visible signs of protest were a handful of artists waving a placard and a man dressed in a fake naked body.

They might have been cheered by the spectacular "illuminations", which began at sunset, throwing lasers across the leviathan exterior of the building, billed as the "symbolic rebirth of Bankside". That almost stopped the rubberneckers. But the question on everybody's lips was: What was Duncan Goodhew doing there?

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